WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to limit embryonic stem cell studies to existing sets -- whether it's 60 or a dozen -- could be a "cruel compromise," excluding people from medical miracles promised by the new science, researchers say.
They said that only by studying stem cells from many different embryos can science be sure that treatments developed would be universally available. By limiting the number, they said, there is the risk of creating two biological classes -- those who can be treated with stem cell therapy and those who cannot.
And they questioned whether there are actually 60 usable stem cell lines, as the president said. Before his Thursday night speech, most scientists had estimated there were 12 stem cell lines, including some that would not meet strict research guidelines.
Bush said he would permit federal funding but with a major restriction: Researchers could use only cells from existing embryonic stem cell lines. This restriction, he said, would mean that no more embryos would be killed to advance federally funded research. Extracting the stem cells kills the embryo.
Asked Friday on ABC's "World News Tonight" if his compromise decision condones the destruction of human life, Bush said the "life and death decision" has already been made for the embryos in the 60 cell lines. All of the cell lines came from embryos made at fertility clinics but not needed for reproduction. Most were scheduled for destruction when they were turned over to researchers.
"The fundamental question is, are we going to destroy more embryos as we go out in the future?" said Bush. "And my answer to that is, 'We shouldn't.' We've got enough."'
Federal health officials said Bush's statement about the existence of more than 60 stem cell lines was based on a survey of laboratories labs in the United States, Sweden, India, Israel and Australia and includes "proprietary information" not generally available.
"All of the stem cell research currently being done on mice is being done on only five stem cell lines," White House counselor Karen Hughes said on NBC's "Today" show. "We're talking about 60 stem cell lines here. I think there's enough work to keep the scientific community very busy and we hope certainly to produce cures."
Most researchers say it could take hundreds of embryonic cell lines to harvest the full benefit of cell therapy.
An embryonic cell line starts as a cluster of cells, each able to evolve into any tissue in the body. The cells can divide virtually forever -- sort of like endlessly cutting out identical paper dolls from a basic pattern. In effect, the cell "line" is endless.
Properly cultured with special proteins, the new cells could evolve into heart, muscle, liver, brain and other tissue. Researchers believe these fresh cells could be injected into patients to boost or repair ailing organs.
But not all embryonic stem cell lines are the same. Since they come from different embryos, they have fundamental genetic differences. As with organ transplants, therapeutic stem cells would have to be compatible with the immune system of the receiving patient. Without this compatibility, the body rejects the curative cells, just as an incompatible kidney or heart can be rejected in an organ transplant.
For this reason, said Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and former head of the National Institutes of Health, limiting embryonic cell lines could be a "cruel compromise" for some people.
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